Trotsky and the Balkan Wars

Published on

On October 8, 1912, the Kingdom of Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Montenegro was soon joined by Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria, initiating the First Balkan War. This was seen as a war of national liberation against Ottoman rule, which was pushed back from most of its European land. However, the inter-imperialist rivalries among the Great Powers operated behind the scenes. By June 29, 1913, a Second Balkan War began as the Great Powers turned the victors from the first war, along with previously neutral Romania, against each other. National conflict flared up a third time the following year, but the result, rather than a Third Balkan War, was the First World War.

When the Balkan Wars broke out, Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky arrived on the scene to experience them firsthand. Exiled to Vienna following the defeat of Russia’s 1905 Revolution, he worked as a journalist for the left-wing Ukrainian paper Kievskaya Mysl (Kyivan Thought). In the Balkans, he served as their war correspondent.

These articles, along with material Trotsky wrote for the underground, revolutionary press, were first collected in Russian in 1926 as Volume VI of his Sochineniia (Collected Works). They were first translated into English in 1981 under the title The Balkan Wars 1912-1913.

In this collection, Trotsky covers the Balkan Wars from a wide variety of angles. There are profiles of leading figures in Balkan politics and interviews with wounded and captured soldiers. Coverage ranges from the intrigues of the Great Powers to life in Bulgaria’s Jewish ghettos. There are polemics against bourgeois politicians and reports on the growing socialist movement.

All this adds up to a profound Marxist analysis of the national conflicts and imperialist rivalries that, shortly afterward, plunged the world into the “war to end all wars.” The First World War revealed the degeneration of the Second International, whose leading figures supported their own countries’ bourgeoisie in the war. Trotsky’s analysis is all the more important because it provides the perspectives of the revolutionaries who resisted that degeneration. 

In today’s New Cold War, we’re once again seeing rising national conflicts and inter-imperialist rivalries. Though written in a different era, Trotsky’s writings on the Balkan wars provide important insights for socialists today.

Uneven And Combined Development

The nation-state hasn’t always existed but is largely a product of the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. These revolutions cleared away old feudal dynastic ties and established democratic rule, albeit on a capitalist basis. The national movements in the Balkans confronted similar feudal relations, entrenched in the Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires. But, by the late 19th century, the bourgeoisie had established itself as the global ruling class.

By 1905, the first Russian Revolution posed the possibility of the proletariat taking power before the bourgeoisie had completed their revolution. This revolution had echoes in the Balkans, inspiring the Romanian peasants’ rebellion of 1907 and the 1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire.

From the experiences of Russia’s 1905 Revolution, Trotsky developed his theory of Permanent Revolution. At the time, Trotsky still saw the theory as specific to Russia. Even so, the building blocks of the theory permeate Trotsky’s analysis of social relations and revolutionary developments in the Balkans.

Key to Trotsky’s analysis was the notion of “uneven and combined development.” Economic development takes place unevenly across the globe but is integrated into global economic development. This forced feudal countries, like those in the Balkans, to selectively build capitalism from above. This meant the rising bourgeoisie was much more tied to the old feudal elite and fearful of the revolutionary role of the working class. As such, they couldn’t play the same revolutionary role as in the French and American Revolutions.

In the Balkans, this was further complicated by the national question:  the unresolved issues and disputes over the rights, borders, and status of different nationalities and ethnic groups. The small, independent Balkan states came into being through the diplomatic intrigues of the Great Powers in the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. Trotsky described the consequences of this treaty:

“There it was that all the measures were taken to convert the national diversity of the Balkans into a regular melee of petty states. None of them was to develop beyond a certain limit, each separately was entangled in diplomatic and dynastic bonds and counterposed to all the rest, and, finally, the whole lot was condemned to helplessness in relation to the Great Powers of Europe and their continual intrigues and machinations.” (p. 47)

The resulting states were constitutional monarchies with democratic parliaments. But the ruling political parties were defined by their relationship with different powers, with Russophile parties squaring off against Austrophile parties. The states had their own local imperialist aspirations while being subject to imperialist domination by Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey, who were in turn junior partners to the big imperialist powers of Britain, France, and Germany.

This precarious arrangement was thrown into disarray by rising class struggle. While the 1905 Russian Revolution was crushed, the Young Turks Revolution was victorious. Strikes and peasant struggles rose. Independence movements in Armenia and Macedonia initially looked to the Young Turks as allies. However, the Young Turks weren’t a working-class movement but were based in bourgeois elements among the military officers. While Trotsky defended the Young Turks Revolution against counterrevolutionary intrigues by Tsarism he also warned, “as soon as the knot of national contradictions starts to unwind within the setting of parliamentarism, the Young Turks’ right wing will openly go over to the side of counterrevolution.” (p. 43)

Underlying that warning, Trotsky cited three questions the Young Turks were unable to resolve: the labor question, the peasant question, and the national question. Sure enough, the Young Turk government banned strikes, upheld serfdom, and doubled down on Turkish nationalism. With the latter, the national question broke out into the open.

Marxism and the National Question

The national question poses important challenges for Marxists. A correct approach remains essential to building the unity of the working class, while at the same time standing steadfastly for the democratic rights of all peoples.

Marxists support the right of nations to self-determination, including the formation of separate states. But this doesn’t mean advocating for secession in every circumstance. The goal is international working-class unity. When national oppression sows distrust among the workers of the oppressed nation, support for self-determination is necessary to cut across that distrust and strengthen international unity.

One danger was shown in the approach of the Austro-Marxists, a reformist trend in the socialist movement at the time. The Austro-Marxists limited their program to autonomy within the bounds of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Rather than representing internationalism, this represented an Austrian chauvinism that foreshadowed their support for Austrian imperialism in the First World War.

Many figures on the reformist left today have made similar errors. For instance, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Podemos in the Spanish state refused to support the right of self-determination for Scotland and Catalonia respectively. This was done in the name of class unity, but cut them off from popular independence struggles that broke out there.

There’s also a danger of simply acting as cheerleaders to national liberation movements. In one article, Trotsky profiles the Macedonian nationalist revolutionary Khristo Matov. Matov’s methods evolved from campaigns of individual terror to diplomatic alliances with various countries’ ruling classes.

Trotsky famously opposed methods of individual terror on the left because they sidelined the masses in favor of heroic individuals. For the Russian anarchists and populists, this left them isolated. For nationalists like Matov, it brought them into the arms of national ruling classes who had little use for the masses: “National revolutionaries, unlike social revolutionaries, always endeavor to link up their conspiratorial operations with the activities of dynasties and diplomats.” In this nationalist context, the terrorist actions “merely serve to begin, to supplement, and to stimulate the slow moves made by dynastic and diplomatic forces, and at the first opportunity they hand political initiative to the latter.” (p. 334)

In recent times, this problem is seen in organizations like the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization who traveled a similar route from individual terror to seeking inclusion in bourgeois governments. Many leftists uncritically cheer these forces under the guise of supporting national liberation.

In contrast to both of these missteps, Trotsky, along with Lenin and the main revolutionary trends in the Balkan socialist movement, put forward a slogan of a Balkan Federation: “The only way out of the national and state chaos and the bloody confusion of Balkan life is a union of all the peoples of the peninsula in a single economic and political entity, on the basis of the constituent parts… Only the united Balkan peoples can give a real rebuff to the shameless pretensions of tsarism and European imperialism.” (p. 77)

Unlike the Austro-Marxist approach, Trotsky explicitly championed the right to independence from the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires. But this was also accompanied by appeals for those oppressed nations to unite and federate, on a free and voluntary basis. This posed a challenge to the chauvinism of the independent Balkan states who put forward slogans of “Greater Bulgaria,” “Greater Serbia,” and “Greater Greece.” As Trotsky explained:

“State unity of the Balkan Peninsula can be achieved in two ways: either from above, by expanding one Balkan state, whichever proves strongest, at the expense of the weaker ones—this is the road of wars of extermination and oppression of weak nations, a road that consolidates monarchism and militarism; or from below, through the peoples themselves coming together—this is the road of revolution, the road that means overthrowing the Balkan dynasties and unfurling the banner of a federal republic.” (p. 77)

National Liberation and Imperialist War

When the First Balkan War broke out, however, things seemed headed in a different direction. The Balkan states united on their own in the Balkan League, and waged a war on behalf of the occupied Balkan territories. They were responding to massacres carried out by the Turkish state against the Macedonian population in Stip and Kocani. None of the Great Powers were directly involved other than the Ottoman Empire, who they were fighting against. The war was popular and waged under the slogan “The Balkans for the Balkan Peoples!” This seemed as close as one could expect to a genuine war of national liberation.

However, the inter-imperialist rivalries manifested behind the scenes. The Entente powers, Britain and Russia, publicly took a neutral position but were instrumental in setting up the Balkan League. Trotsky’s interviews with Balkan politicians during the war find unanimous expectation of Russian support as key to achieving their victory. France, the other Entente power, only remained neutral to avoid a premature confrontation with Germany. Meanwhile Turkey’s allies, Germany and Austria-Hungary, kept their distance only because they weren’t sure how stable Ottoman Rule was.

This situation was prefigured in 1908 with the “Annexation Crisis.” Taking advantage of the Young Turks Revolution, Austria-Hungary annexed Turkish-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina. In response there was a big push from Russian liberals demanding Russia provide military aid to the oppressed Balkan peoples. Trotsky’s response at the time was unequivocal opposition: “On our part we must not strengthen the tsarist government for struggle against Austria, we must not supply it with recruits, must not vote for its budget and loans, as do the Cadet traitors in the Duma, but, on the contrary, we must weaken it in every way, until we can deal it the ultimate deathblow.” (p. 36)

This wasn’t simply Trotsky’s personal view as a Russian outsider, but was held by the main socialist parties in the Balkans. From the Annexation Crisis to the First Balkan War, the Balkan socialists agitated around the Balkan Federation as an explicit counter to Russia’s attempt to portray itself as a liberator of the slavs. At the start of the First Balkan War, the Balkan socialists maintained opposition in the face of popular support. Trotsky particularly praises Dragiša Lapčević, the Serbian Social Democratic representative in parliament, for casting the sole vote against war credits.

The correctness of this approach became clear as the wars developed. Competing imperial ambitions between the Balkan states created cracks in the unity of the Balkan peoples. The First Balkan War was preceded by a series of Albanian uprisings against Ottoman rule but, in the war, most Albanians sided with the Turks. A disappointed Serbian soldier Trotsky interviewed explained the reason: “the Albanians realized that what threatened was a partition of Albania between Serbia and Greece, and they must defend their fields, their huts, and their cattle.” (quoted p. 180)

The Albanian question was a key factor linking the First Balkan War to the Second. At the end of the First Balkan War, Albania was granted independence in the Treaty of London. This was done at the behest of Austria-Hungary, making the same disingenuous appeals to self-determination that Russia was making for other nations. Austrian imperialism’s actual goal was preventing Serbia from obtaining sea access. Blocked on that end, Serbia and Greece seized Macedonia, which provoked conflict with Bulgaria. This saw the breakdown of the Balkan League and the start of the Second Balkan War.

A key article comes near the end of the Second Balkan War where Trotsky debates the Russian Liberal Ivan Kirillovich. Kirillovich was one of the champions of the first war but proclaimed the second war a disgrace.

In attacking Trotsky’s opposition to the first war, Kirillovich made arguments similar to those made by pro-imperialist liberals in the West and which are deployed against those who oppose imperialism and its wars:

“For you [Trotsky], all this is simple: you reject war altogether, at any time and under any circumstances. A war in the Balkans or a war in Patagonia, aggressive or defensive, for liberation or for conquest—you make no distinctions. But we consider it necessary to investigate the real historical content of the war, the given war, the war in the Balkans, and we can’t shut our eyes to the fact that what is involved here is the liberation of Slav people from Turkish rule. Not to sympathize with such a war, not to support it, would simply mean support, indirectly if not directly, Turkish rule over Slavs.” (quoted p. 455)

When faced with the disgrace of the second war, Kirillovich arbitrarily tried to separate the two wars: “I see no necessary connection between this war and the previous one, the war of liberation. I do not know of any such connection, and I deny that one exists.” (quoted p. 456)

Trotsky’s response is insightful:

“Don’t you agree that between this ‘disgraceful’ war and the war you called a ‘liberating’ war there is an indissoluble connection? You don’t agree? Let’s look at the question more closely. The emancipation of the Macedonian peasantry from feudal landlord bondage was undoubtedly something necessary and historically progressive. But this task was undertaken by forces that had in view not the interests of the Macedonian peasantry but their own covetous interests as dynastic conquerors and bourgeois predators. A usurpation of historical tasks such as this is not at all an exceptional happening. . . . But it is not at all a matter of indifference who undertakes this task and how. . . . You Slavophile Liberals advertised as a war of liberation, a war which, in order to satisfy military and dynastic appetites, took as its point of departure the desire of the Macedonian peasantry for liberation. Not a struggle by the Macedonians for their own freedom, but a bloody speculation by the Balkan dynasties at the expense of Macedonia, was what you supported in the press and in the Duma.” (pp 455-456)

This is the understanding socialists need, even today, when imperialist powers and corrupt national capitalists proclaim to be fighting for national liberation, as do the Western powers in Ukraine.

Revolutionary Party

The Serbian Social Democrats’ vote against war credits was repeated in 1914 when Serbia’s conflict with Austria triggered the First World War. This stood in stark contrast to the role played by the leadership of the Second International who shamefully supported their own countries’ ruling class. When Trotsky wrote War and the International, his denunciation of the Second International’s betrayal, he singled out the Serbian party for praise:

“If the idea of a ‘war of defense’ has any meaning at all, it certainly applied to Serbia in this instance. Nevertheless, our friends, Lapčević and Kaclerović, unshaken in their conviction of the course of action that they as Socialists must pursue, refused the government a vote of confidence.“

Following the collapse of the Second International, the Balkan Socialists were among the key forces in regrouping the revolutionary left around the Zimmerwald movement. However this wasn’t foreordained. Serbia’s pro-entente ruling politicians were ex-socialists who had been active in the First International: Prime Minister Nikola Pašić was a supporter of Bakunin and his finance minister, Lazar Paču, was a supporter of Marx. In Romania, a wing of the socialist movement, around the paper Adeverul, became staunch Romanian chauvinists in the Second Balkan War. They were challenged in the Romanian socialist movement by the Workers’ Party under Konstantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea and Trotsky’s friend Christian Rakovsky, who adopted an internationalist, anti-war position. 

The Bulgarian party had a similar history to the Russian party. It had its own factional split in 1903 between the Tesnyaks (“narrows”) and the “broads,” rough analogues to Russia’s Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. In Russia, Trotsky initially supported the Mensheviks but, as their political failings were exposed, moved in an independent direction. In Bulgaria, he and Lenin both supported the Tesnyaks, and some of his articles are jointly written with the Tensyak Khristo Kabakchiev. The Tesnyaks, headed by Dimitri Blagoev, played a key role in consolidating the Balkan revolutionaries through the Balkan Socialist Conference in 1910. This was key to inoculating the Balkan revolutionaries against the nationalist pressures of the Balkan Wars and the First World War.

In his writings on the Balkan Wars, Trotsky highlights the positive role played by these parties. However, he doesn’t go into depth about the programmatic disputes. This stands in contrast to Trotsky’s later, better-known writings. Part of this is the limitations placed on his work as war correspondent. Kievskaya Mysl, as a legal paper subject to Tsarist censorship, wasn’t an ideal forum for discussing the intricacies of revolutionary politics. However, it also stemmed from Trotsky’s political limitations at the time.

By the time of the Balkan wars, Trotsky had long broken from the Mensheviks but hadn’t yet embraced the Bolsheviks. In 1912, he formed a bloc, with no underlying political ideology, grouped around assorted organizational grievances with the Bolsheviks. Ironically, Trotsky criticized a similar bloc of anti-Tesnyak forces grouped around the paper Kambana.

In both cases, however, Trotsky had a common attitude that subsequent events forced him to abandon. While supporting the Tesnyaks, he still argued “The nature and form of the groupings and divisions within the Bulgarian socialist movement are basically due to the country’s political immaturity.” (p. 69) In his autobiography, Trotsky recounted a similar error as the basis of his mistakes in Russia at the time: “I was still hoping that the new revolution would force the Mensheviks as had that of 1905 to follow a revolutionary path. But I underestimated the importance of preparatory ideological selection and of political case-hardening. In questions of the inner development of the party I was guilty of a sort of social-revolutionary fatalism.”

The experiences of imperialist war brought to the fore the need for that “preparatory ideological selection” and “political case-hardening.” In the Balkans, the socialist movement was tested earlier.

Learning from History

The Balkan Wars happened over a century ago. However, one can easily see modern parallels. The Balkans are still a source of complex national conflict. More broadly, the US-China conflict has clear parallels with the pre-First World War divisions between the Alliance and Entente powers.

Of course, history never repeats itself exactly. The task isn’t to copy and paste perspectives from over a century ago to the present. But it’s also not correct to cite assorted historical differences as an excuse to learn nothing. The task is to understand what different historical periods have in common with the present, what the differences are, and to use that to get a better understanding of the present.

Beyond the Balkans, we see similar phenomena where national conflicts get tangled up in inter-imperialist rivalry. The war in Ukraine is the most visible example. In addition, there are the conflicts in the South China Sea, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Horn of Africa. Understanding these conflicts benefit from the methods of Trotsky and the Balkan socialists.

Once again, the time periods aren’t exact replicas. In the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the feudal elements that dominated in Trotsky’s time are now absent. Capitalist relations are fully dominant today in the region although combined and uneven development in the context of the domination of the main imperialist powers is still a decisive issue. Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution was in part a challenge to the idea that the bourgeoisie could play a revolutionary role against the old feudal aristocracy as they did in the French and American Revolutions. With the bourgeoisie more thoroughly consolidated as the ruling class, this argument is even stronger.

Moreover, the working class in the region is now far more developed. This puts them in a much stronger position to change society. At the same time working-class organization has been thrown back by decades of defeats and the revolutionary socialist movement in the region is far weaker than it was a century ago. This makes building working-class organization and the revolutionary party all the more urgent.

Latest articles


Minneapolis, 1934: When Socialists Led A General Strike Of Teamsters

2024 may go down in history as a turning point for the labor movement in America. There are seismic shifts taking place deep within...

The Radical Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. first emerged as a leader of class struggle for racial justice in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts at 26 years old....

Lenin’s Real Legacy, 100 Years On

January 21, 2024 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, popularly known as Lenin. Lenin was a leader of the...

The Legacy of the Zapatistas

Thirty years ago, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) captured international attention. Masked in balaclavas and demanding rights for...